Zoe Karpin lives in Sydney’s inner west with her partner and dog and also works as a Learning and support teacher at a south west multicultural Sydney High School. She has had short stories published in journals such as Going Down Swinging, Gathering Force, Hecate & Femzine recently and online journals such as Dotlit and Sūdō journal recently.
After the Bushfire
Jack’s house burnt down in the year with the terrible bushfires and the driest spell since records began in this part of southern NSW. He would often travel from there to see Sophie in Sydney, expelling carbon and burning rubber on the way. When the bushfires began he was stuck in Sydney. He built the house with his brother and father. He had lived there with some other woman. The woman had left a long time ago. She told him she couldn’t cope with her loneliness, the use of glyphosate in all the gardens and the plastic waste; water bottles, bags and bottle tops, which not only rattled along the gutters of the town’s centre, but along the bush trails edged with wattles and eucalypts out where they lived. She had miscarried twice, one had to be birthed in hospital and it was born dead with a tail. Thank goodness it didn’t live then.
It was not too soon in their relationship for Sophie to tell him. ‘But we will have lots of happy children.’
He looked at her with a half-smile.
Doesn’t he believe her?
When he can, he drives back to his home that is now a block to be cleared. This time he will do it alone. There is not very much left of the house anyway, a skip full.
He will tell her, ‘last time I breathed in the scent of hope but now the smell is of nothing but shovelfuls of charred, crippled tree skeletons dangling torn roots, bricks and glass.’
On his return to the city she sees there are deep cuts in the webbing of his right thumb and index finger. He has bound them together with band aids.
‘You should have stitches,’ she gently takes the plasters off and reapplies fresh ones so he can still move these vital digits. He doesn’t even wince.
In her third storey brick flat in bed at night, with the cool air conditioner turned on so it will run through their torrid dreams, she strolls her hands down the long caterpillar shaped spinal column of his body – although the spinal column is hard not soft. The vertebras one after the other are like joined together shells. His ligaments hold these shells together; stabilising his spine, and protecting the internal discs. There are three ligaments but she can’t see them only feel their rope length and breadth as she massages his back in the after light. He hasn’t asked for this massage but she gives it to him anyway.
His ligaments have not been torn nor worn away with the weight of what he has carried for all these years; black handled axes, red bricks, tawny wood, glass, wooden furniture, ghosts of children, other people’s children, chickens, dogs, herbs and vegetables and even her today. He is like many men. His yellow ligaments are rubber, bouncing the weights he has carried as easily as a leather ball. Then there are his discs, shock absorbers, hard on the outside and soft in the core as she has learnt. The discs have never bulged or slipped. However, his spine can get too stiff and he aches before sleeping.
Her palms have five flesh coloured sailing boat extensions each and they travel his body.
But will it become her task every night now to tack the shells apart with her transporting hands?
‘You must talk about the pain,’ she tells him.
‘What pain?’ he says.
However, it’s only after the massage he can make noiseless love to her.
In the morning, he takes her to his no-longer house. They are engulfed in a special smell, a stench, rolling along the freeways, running through the bush. It is the odour of endangered dead native animals. She has never felt like crying because of a fetidness before. However, this time is not like other times and she catches sight through the smudged car’s window pane of one brown, grey kangaroo by itself in the bush; a thin, straggly kangaroo. She hasn’t seen a kangaroo alone in the bush before. Its back is curved like a singular fluted pearl shell on a wide expanse of beach-like peat. Finally, at his no-longer house there is the garage he never mentioned, somehow left clinging to its purpose. The Roll-A-Door was up during the fire and it is curiously undamaged. However, all his fine tools he carefully kept on a crumbling bench of withered steel are now reduced to ornamental shadows of their former, solid metal utility. She sees how he clasps these old broken implements in large strong fists, holds them for a while and says, ‘I’ve done a lot with these.’
Her black eyes blur and the tools he clutches merge into his hands. She says, ‘No doubt.’
She can’t see any self-pity in his gaze nor does he look at her in a way that suggests he wants it.
They move on to the rest of the burnt emptiness. Yet, there are still the concrete steps out the back that don’t go into the no-longer house.
She knows what he means about this particular smell. It is of smoke and burning; the charcoal soil is steeped in the brew. She is young enough though not to be daunted by any of this.
However, in the once tree filled backyard, a little bird, a young sooty myna bird flies down to land and block their pathway. The myna with its small specially flight built back and head with the yellow patch behind its eye, shakes itself at them – as if to say, ‘what have you done to my world?’
Then Jack weeps.